Yes, You Can Die From Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes someone to stop breathing intermittently while they sleep. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes and blocks airflow.

If left untreated, sleep apnea can increase your risk of a number of serious and potentially fatal health complications, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Research suggests that over 38,000 people die in the U.S. each year from heart disease complicated by sleep apnea.

Read on to learn more about sleep apnea, including symptoms, causes, complications, diagnosis, and treatment.

Woman with sleep apnea adjusts CPAP mask

cherrybeans / Getty Images

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes intermittent breathing disruptions during sleep. These interruptions occur frequently throughout the night and often last 10 seconds or more. 

There are several types of sleep apnea, including:

How Common Is Sleep Apnea?

The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that around 22 million Americans have sleep apnea. Many people with the condition don’t know they have it.

Symptoms

Many people with sleep apnea aren’t aware of any interruptions in their sleep during the night. Instead, the first symptom many people notice is excessive daytime sleepiness. In addition to daytime fatigue, the symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud, frequent snoring 
  • Gasping during the night
  • Restless sleep
  • Difficulties with concentration
  • Irritability
  • Morning headaches
  • Falling asleep during the day
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Causes

Men and people over 60 are more at risk of developing sleep apnea. Other risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Obesity
  • Large neck circumference
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Small airways
  • Enlarged tonsils, especially in children
  • Use of sedatives, alcohol, or tranquilizers before bedtime
  • Smoking
  • Being post-menopausal
  • Certain hormone-related conditions, such as hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) and acromegaly (excessive growth hormone)
  • Certain facial features, such as a small lower jaw

Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening health conditions, including:

Sleep apnea decreases the overall quality of sleep and restricts oxygen flow. This puts the body in a constant state of stress, which can negatively affect the heart and other organs. 

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found that OSA was linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related deaths and sudden death for any reason. People with severe OSA were more at risk of heart disease and death than people with mild or moderate OSA. 

Other research has tied sleep apnea to elevated blood sugar levels, treatment-resistant hypertension (high blood pressure), and recurring atrial fibrillation (irregular or fast heartbeat).

Excessive daytime sleepiness may also put people with sleep apnea at risk for fatal accidents, such as falling asleep while driving or operating machinery.

Diagnosis

The only definitive way to get diagnosed with sleep apnea is through a sleep study, also called polysomnography. 

After talking to your healthcare provider about your symptoms, they will likely refer you to a sleep specialist. 

An overnight sleep study may be conducted at a sleep lab or, if medically necessary, at home. During a sleep study, you’ll be provided with a comfortable place to rest for around six hours. The following information will be recorded as you sleep: 

  • Brain waves (through an electroencephalogram, or EEG)
  • Eye and chin movements (through an electrooculogram, or EOG)
  • Heart rate and rhythm (through an echocardiogram, or ECG)
  • Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
  • Leg movements
  • Breathing rate

Most importantly, the test will determine your apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). This number refers to the breathing interruptions you experience per hour while you sleep. An AHI of 5 to 15 is classified as mild, while 15 to 30 is moderate. Someone who experiences 30 or more interruptions per hour has severe sleep apnea.

Ask Your Healthcare Provider

If you have a history of certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease, you should ask your healthcare provider about getting tested for sleep apnea.

Treatment

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. In PAP therapy, you’ll place a mask over your nose (or nose and mouth) as you sleep. The mask eliminates apneas by blowing pressurized air into the lungs.

PAP devices can help people with sleep apnea get more sleep, improve their sleep quality, and reduce the risk of serious medical complications (such as high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack).

If you are prescribed PAP therapy, you’ll be fitted for a mask to ensure that it fits comfortably and provides the right amount of air pressure. There are several different kinds of PAP devices, including: 

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP devices are the most common PAP devices, especially for people with OSA, and often the least expensive. A CPAP machine will deliver the same amount of air pressure as you inhale and exhale.
  • Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP): BiPAP devices deliver higher-air pressure during inhalation than exhalation. They are often prescribed to people who have CSA or struggle to tolerate CPAP machines.
  • Automatic positive airway pressure (APAP): APAP devices have high-pressure and low-pressure settings. They are often used for patients with seasonal allergies or excess congestion.

Different PAP devices may also include features like: 

  • Humidification, which adds moisture to the inhaled air
  • Ramping, which starts at a low-pressure level and “ramps up” during the night
  • Pressure relief, which lowers the pressure at the beginning of an exhale

For people who can’t tolerate CPAP therapy, oral appliances or surgery (such as soft palate surgery) may be needed.

Keeping Up With PAP Therapy

PAP therapy for sleep apnea is generally safe and effective. However, 46% to 83% of people diagnosed with sleep apnea do not use their PAP device as prescribed. Using your device according to your healthcare provider’s instructions can help you reduce your risk of many sleep apnea-related health complications.

Prevention

There are several lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent sleep apnea, including:

  • Sleeping in a different position, such as on your side
  • Losing weight 
  • Getting help to quit smoking
  • Not drinking alcohol before sleep
  • Not taking sedatives unless prescribed

In cases of mild OSA, these changes may be all you need. In more severe cases, however, you will likely need treatment with a CPAP device.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re experiencing any of the following signs or symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of sleep apnea.

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Morning headaches
  • Never feeling rested, even after a full night of sleep
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Waking throughout the night, especially with a choking sensation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Falling asleep while driving, watching TV, or reading

Summary

Sleep apnea is a common medical condition that causes intermittent disruptions in breathing during sleep. Risk factors for sleep apnea include being overweight, being male, being over 60, and having a family history of snoring or sleep apnea, among others.

Untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk of many potentially fatal medical complications, such as stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and deadly accidents. 

After being diagnosed through a sleep study, people with sleep apnea can be treated using positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. It’s sometimes possible to prevent sleep apnea with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking, as well as changing sleep positions.

A Word From Verywell

While there’s no cure for sleep apnea, it is treatable. Talk to your healthcare provider about getting diagnosed with sleep apnea so you can start therapy and get a more refreshing night of rest.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How low can your oxygen level go before you die?

    A healthy blood oxygen level is usually 95% or higher. A blood oxygen level of 92% or lower is concerning and may require supplemental oxygen. At 88%, you should seek immediate medical attention. A level of 70% and lower may be life-threatening.

  • Is sleep apnea curable?

    Sleep apnea is not curable. However, it can be treated with positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, can also help to ease symptoms and restore restful sleep.

  • What does sleep apnea sound like?

    Sleep apnea causes disruptions in breathing that last for 10 seconds or more. This often causes a pause in breathing during sleep, followed by loud gasping or choking sounds. Many people with sleep apnea also snore loudly and frequently.

  • What would happen if you let sleep apnea go untreated?

    Uncontrolled sleep apnea can lead to a number of potential health complications. These may include stroke, heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, and sudden death.

    Excessive daytime sleepiness from sleep apnea can also lead to fatal accidents, such as car crashes, and negatively affect performance at work or school.

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14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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